The Divine Hours of Lent

We have six cats, which is more or less four too many, even in the country. In the beginning, we had one cat, a stray who wandered into one of the back sheds and whom Sam adopted out of mercy for her very gravid state of being at the time. Then the physician in him could not bear to not help out after she delivered. Once the physician-mode had kicked in, he had to be sure that none of the kittens died. None did. A few, mercifully, got given away, but we’re presently caring for most of Mama Cat’s second litter, with some signs that she herself may be on a third. We are also totally out of friends who will even let us speak of her prospects, however.
The Farm In Lucy, where we and the cats live along with Miss Lucy, the coon hound, and Miss Emma, the basset hound, is no more a farm now than a tricycle is a racing bike. We are down to little more than ten acres and no animals other than the dogs and cats. Our house itself sits fairly near to the county road, though, and more or less at the far western edge of an acre of something that, in a manner of speaking, resembles a yard. It is planted in grass and flowers, anyway, and has a driveway and a couple of walks, and is described by some tremulous fencing left over from the years when there really were cows to be kept out, or in, as the case may be.
What’s left of the acreage that the cows once grazed on, however, is directly to the back and to the east of our house and yard, making a kind of engulfing and deceptive wrap around two sides of the house and acre of yard. Standing in my kitchen or on our patio, or looking out the bedroom windows, I am right back on the farm again. I see the sheds and the barn, and the wind-break and, way in the distance, the woods beyond our dam. Time becomes a still-frame; and I am once more on the farm as it was and always will be in my perceptions.
When we were actively farming, cats were an important and functional part of the balance of nature. Cows, especially pregnant heifers, have to have some feed in addition to hay; and chickens, guinea fowl, and turkeys most surely have to, if they are not free-range. Mice, not to mention rats and raccoons, seem to be unanimous in thinking that some of that food is their just due as well. It is a position that only barn cats, barn snakes, and yard dogs can really handle. So in our years of farming, we were affectionately careful of Sam, the eight-foot-long garden snake [not to be confused with Sam, the doctor, or Sam, the Jr.] We were attentive to the dogs, and the children were downright attached to them; but the cats were different.
At one point there were twenty-three of them, the best we could tell. They would romp and play and doze in the barnyard like cats are supposed to do; but they would also snag and eat a mouse before I could even react to its being there. They were skinny most of the time, but they were lean, mean, working machines. They were beautiful things to see in their agility and almost leonine in their self-assurance. No so, Mama Cat and her progeny.
Mama Cat and Company are as fat and sleek as any cats God ever assigned to the easy life. They’re still relegated to an outside existence, for Miss Lucy and Miss Emma have let it be known that they are far too old to be expected to tolerate cats in their space. But outside dwellers or not, these six are not feral creatures. Not by a long shot. They eat unbelievably well, Sam usually being the one each morning to mix up a off-putting mash of a quart of cat food and a can or two of mackerel and carry it out to them on the deck. I like to watch him do it, because he so obviously enjoys the process.
During the day, I like to pass by the front door and see the deck decorated with the preening or sleeping bodies of incredibly clean, well-groomed cats. I enjoy petting them, I confess, for there is something singular about stroking a cat and being rubbed back in gratitude. I especially rather revel in the fact that, while they seem never to go beyond the yard’s fencing, our six do bound and cavort and play a great deal in the flower beds or under the pine trees. When they do that, all’s right in my world, except for one thing.
I deplore people–writers and preachers, especially–who will tell a long, fancy story just to make some kind of minor religious or moral point of it all. It’s a kind of verbal seduction that almost always seems to me both to be cheap as a ploy and to cheapen the art of storytelling as well; but I am about to do it. I am about to do it, because I have thought a long, long time about these cats and because I’m not at all sure the point is minor. The more I have thought about our cats, in fact, the more they persuade me of something that is more Lenten than most sermons.
When Sam opens the front door–or when I do, for I really do share the actual feeding, if not the mixing–When one of us turns the key in the front door to open it, there suddenly are cats coming from all corners of the yard. Before the door is fully unlocked, all six will be on the deck table or on the flower box beside the door or frantically chasing the screen door as if to slide under it and get to us first. To walk the four feet from the door to the feeding bowls on the table is to shake cats off one’s leg with each tedious lift of one’s foot. The far greater trick, though, is to be able to get between the door and the flower box without being pawed, grabbed, or snagged by one or two of them lying in wait there. And when one actually gets to the dishes, then true mayhem breaks out. The cats claw at each other and bat each other and push and shove with a skill and ferocity unequalled by anything I ever saw in their feral, barn-dwelling predecessors.
And it is impossible to go through this process every day without realizing that the truly unpleasant and counter-productive aggression in these cats, both toward us and each other, is a product of the ease with which they live. One often hears older folk talk about how the easy life ruins us, and it probably does. I certainly can accept the fact that the more we have, the more we want. Christian theology urges upon us the need to strip ourselves of everything beyond the necessities in order to be free; but before the cats, I always assumed those tenets had to do with not being burdened with distractions or owned by one’s own possessions. The cats have given me a different spin on that.
The cats seem to me to be demonstrating every single day that the more they are given, the more they expect it to be easily given. The more they are given, the more they eschew the bonds of fellow-creatureliness….and the more they are given, the more they seem to attack and blame us for not moving quickly enough or completely enough or often enough to meet their desires, if not their needs.
In a world swirling in a kind of complaining neo-atheism and in a Lent rife with prosperity gospels and long-winded explanations about how to forgive or justify God for all the pain in life by trusting Him more, I am struck by the cats. I am, in fact, clobbered by the cats and by an inevitable analogy:
If I were one of my cats, then I would be a creature in a house not of my ownership or making, and I would be a creature generously cared for by a householder not of my posture or station. How, then, should I conduct myself in the midst of such a situation? With an occasional and delightful romp of beauty before the householder, and think it enough? With a purring prayer from time to time and an occasional sidling up to appear appreciative, and believe my part of the bargain to be fulfilled? Should I hope that somehow those acts would seduce the householder into not seeing and remembering my daily grasping at the food dish and my viciousness to the other cats who feed there…or even my meowing complaints about a meal delayed or a dish not filled rapidly enough or one not set under a table and away from a sudden rain storm….?
How then should I conduct myself indeed?
It is, as I said, a question more Lenten than most sermons are.

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